Why we search for meaning in Roger Federer
The 18-time Grand Slam champion is not about artistic beauty or impossibly perfect shots anymore. His game radiates meaning depending on who the observer is
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The antimatter of literature might be sports commentary. In sports commentary, intense men convey excitement by being excitable, they repeat things, scream clichés, describe matters that are in plain sight as though for the blind, and use poor metaphors. For instance, the batsman they called “The Wall”, Rahul Dravid, has the world record for losing his stumps the highest number of times in Test cricket. And they called Shoaib Akhtar, who was the fastest bowler of his generation, “Rawalpindi Express”, a Pakistani train that was slower than him. These metaphors have stuck because, unlike literature, sports commentary is influential.
In commentary, an observation is what is seen and reported. In literature, an observation is what is seen, then remembered, imagined, interpreted or recounted in a manner that makes the self-centred reader mistakenly relate to it. Roger Federer, who has begun his 19th campaign for the Wimbledon title, would have been a subject of commentary alone (“Did you see that”, “Genius”, “What a beauty”) if it were not for some qualities that have attracted the attention of literature (“Roger Federer As Religious Experience”).
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The above-mentioned piece of literature was by the American writer David Foster Wallace, who himself was “a near great junior tennis player”, in his own words. The essay published in The New York Times in 2006 was, in large swathes of prose, an unsentimental analysis of Federer’s game, the nature of muscles and the technology of new rackets, but it was at its core a tribute to his artistic beauty, the impossibility of some of his shots, and the inexplicable, “metaphysical” nature of his game. Wallace never once used the expression “religious experience”. He was the sort of man who would prefer “spiritual” to “religious”. He borrowed the term from a bus driver whose analysis of Federer’s game was “bloody near-religious experience”. It was a description that Wallace, and the hundreds of thousands who read the essay, endorsed. In 2008, Wallace killed himself; it brought a level of fame to the article that was unprecedented for a sports essay.
Beauty in sports has become an underdog. It has, oddly, become a form of weakness that is thrashed by the brute force of power. But Federer is the revenge of beauty. No other athlete today represents so many facets of grace. In him is the victory of elegance over power, as though in the fable of modern sports, elegance is somehow moral and muscular power is evil. Also, even though nobody refers to Federer’s beauty as feminine, its arch-villains are usually depicted as manly things. This despite the fact that he has considerable manly power himself. And his perfection is somehow rated higher than the perfection of players whose shots are not as attractive as his.
He is not about beauty alone any more. He radiates meaning depending on who the observer is. That he is 35 and still a top-level athlete would not have been such a surprise if most people in their 30s, especially sports journalists, were fit. His endurance as a professional athlete informs his fans of the seeming connection between grace and longevity. His more muscular arch-rival, Rafael Nadal, has been ruined by injuries while Federer has, largely, waltzed along. Also, in the unspoken perception of his observers, his wife Mirka, who has lived in public memory almost as long as his fame, even as the more glamorous partners of his contemporaries have proven to be seasonal, lends him a certain depth as a man. His ability to cry publicly, they associate with how much tennis matters to him. Privately, most women, if not all, appear to be annoyed by his propensity to burst into tears, and even in that there is a lesson for his male fans—that they should not be fooled into believing that it is all right for modern men to cry.
Tennis, as it is an individual game (so is cricket, but that argument another day), does not convey obvious management lessons—especially Roger Federer’s game. Genius, style and beauty translate very poorly in management talk. But an integral part of corporate bull today is the linking of every major sporting phenomenon to management lessons. Team sports, like football, are the beloved of gurus who wish to convey the importance of “team effort”, which is very simply the supremacy of a group of ordinary men over the stardom of the genius. Federer, even though he stands to disprove almost every cherished management lesson about the importance of the ordinary, is too big and too popular for the gurus to ignore. So even they are forced to see meaning in him.
There are icons in other sports who have inspired writers to see more than what is obvious. Almost all of Brazilian football would qualify. Tiger Woods, once upon a time. Magnus Carlsen, for the few who can understand why his chess is beautiful. Sachin Tendulkar, of course. But Federer has one quality that the other comparable athletes do not possess, a quality that is important to the elite anywhere even though the establishment does not explicitly speak about it—he is posh, like them. He is capable of speaking about his sport and his own game with a degree of sophistication. In him, finally, there is a relationship between sporting aesthetics and social refinement. But despite his articulation in at least three of the world’s most influential languages, he does not seem to have a significant view about most of the esoteric things that are said about him. His legend appears to be partly the imagination of those who wish to see in him a grand victory for beauty.
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I must confess that I am among the writers who has seen more in him than he probably does himself. I have undertaken a pilgrimage to Shanghai to watch him in a stadium, up close, to confirm my theories about him. For example, I wish to see in Federer the true meaning of style, which is that it is not a form of rebellion against the norms but in fact the perfect adoption of conventional wisdom. Also, in an unspoken war of our times—between the stylish, who stand for beauty, versus the efficient, who stand for getting things done—I want to believe Federer is nature’s sly admission that it is on the side of style. Also in him, I wish to believe, is the proof that sometimes the most beautiful thing in us is also the least efficient. Like Roger Federer’s backhand.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. He tweets at @manujosephsan